2018 has been a historical year for Northwestern. For the first time in the program’s history, it will compete in the Big Ten Championship. That game is for next week, though. On Saturday, Northwestern will be playing for pride, for the seniors, and to establish the ever-so-large gap in the state of the programs between Illinois and Northwestern. This game matters.
Ask any Northwestern coach or player and they’ll tell you how much this game means to them. On Monday, Pat Fitzgerald was quick to emphasize the importance of this contest.
“Playing for the Land of Lincoln trophy is a big deal. We’ve won three in a row and it matters, we want to win the game and send the seniors out the right way on Saturday.”
This game represents a statement of culture. Over the past four seasons, Northwestern has 34 wins. In that same span, Illinois has 14. Northwestern earned two bowl victories, while Illinois didn’t qualify for a bowl. These two teams couldn’t be trending in more opposite directions. With the chance to win its fourth straight HAT, It’s imperative that Northwestern continues to assert its dominance once again in this rivalry.
“It definitely means a lot,” senior J.B. Butler said, “I’m excited to have the chance to go 4-0 against them. It’s a pretty unique situation and I’m really excited.”
There is also the matter of the aforementioned Big Ten Title game. It would behoove Northwestern to put together a credible performance before having to face a much superior team in Ohio State or Michigan. While Northwestern tends to play up and down to its opponents, it would be reassuring to see the team click in all three phases against a lesser team.
Further, if the Wildcats can cruise out ahead of Illinois, other benefits could arise. The chance to rest its starters for any period of time would be immense as the Big Ten East champion will almost certainly not have the same opportunity. The thought of Northwestern getting into Indianapolis at 8-4 is exciting, but the thought of arriving in Indy healthy and firing on all cylinders is even better.
Even on a much more simplistic level, there is a big difference between seven wins and eight wins. If Northwestern managed to drop this game, everyone would have a sour taste in their mouth going into the biggest game of the Fitzgerald era. Win, and this regular season will represent a funky but special ride.
Coming into the season, I feel comfortable saying that any Northwestern fan would’ve taken eight wins and a chance to play for the Rose Bowl. Yes, that loss to Akron is still there, but if Northwestern can pull off victories in these two clashes, it will be a mere blip on a historic season.
The path to making that hope a reality begins this Saturday at 2:30. Let’s get that HAT.